Recently I had the pleasure of attending a talk by Alice Procter entitled Muddling the Museum. It looked at ways museum collections and interactions were being decolonised by external groups, as well as critiquing the internal processes of these colonial institutions. The event was filmed and hopefully it will be available for others to view as Alice is an exceptional speaker and was able to provide a clear picture of the complicated and often messy nature of decolonisation.
I came away from the event with a lot of questions that I have only just started to reflect on, especially around intention vs impact, and questioning who and what the [museum] spaces are for.
"A nostalgic fantasy of a museum space." - Alice Procter
The above quote from Alice had me thinking back to a post I wrote in 2014 about the nostalgia for library spaces that never existed. Alice was referring to the 'Enlightenment Gallery' (a name that instantly makes me cringe) in the British Museum. She explains on her tours that this space is a recreation of a museum space that never existed. The lack of explanation at the site about this shows that the museum wants visitors to hold this image of a 'noble' past to promote a colonial agenda that protects the museum from repatriation and reparations.
I was asked by a friend afterwards what my main take-away was from the talk. Alice made a point of saying that many examples she showed of museums attempting to acknowledge their colonial past were hitting a 'low bar'. This had me thinking, what would be the Bechdel test for a museum/gallery/archive/library? The Bechdel test being the lowest bar a film can hit in terms of representations of women, ie. the least they can do. This idea of what the lowest bar a collecting institution can hit in terms of decolonisation stayed with me throughout the talk.
"Display it like you stole it." - Alice Procter
Could it be having an interpretation that mentions the nature of the acquisition of an object? Something that acknowledging the traditional owners of a collection item, and if it given freely or taken by force. Or could the bar be even lower? Having a single item in an exhibition that is from a First Nation perspective or that challenges the traditional colonial narrative. Or is it even lower than that? Is it having a line in an interpretation that acknowledges the colonial history of an item but is so 'neutral' as to be useless?
As with the Bechdel test, the idea of hitting this low bar isn't something to be proud of, it's a shorthand way of being critical as in, 'I can't believe it didn't even pass the Bechdel test.' It is literally the least you can do. In a perfect world collecting institutions should be so far above this bare minimum that if all you can achieve is hitting this simple goal then you have failed. I am unsure if having such a test would cause more harm than good but having such a limit become mainstream might be the only way to force these deeply colonial institutions to lift their game, even if it's to the lowest bar imaginable.